To read Joyce's column on Stephen Burt and Michael Schaaf at the PSA Panel on Criticism
To read Perloff and Vendler Spar at PSA Panel on Criticism, part one of Joyce’s OBSERVATIONS
Joyce has just interviewed Jessie Lendennie of Salmon Publishing. To read the interview, visit The Poetry Porch ___________
A review by Joyce in Summer 2000 of Thomas O’Grady
More work by Joyce Wilson in Spring 2000
A review of Wit
Poetry Porch Feature
The State of American Poetry: Roundtable Discussion
A Column by Joyce Wilson
Stephen Burt, a Critic Who Writes Poetry or a New Poet?Popular Music by Stephen Burt. Winner of the 1999 Colorado Prize for Poetry. Center for Literary Publishing, University Press of Colorado, 1999. $14.95 ISBN 0870815555 (paper).
***** Why has Stephen Burt, who made such an auspicious beginning as an undergraduate at Harvard with his academic scholarship, diverted his critical efforts by publishing a book of poems? This first book of poetry Popular Music describes coming of age, the states of boyhood and girlhood, travelling, high art, and popular culture in poems that are funny, confusing, and engaging all at once. While they address subjects of autobiography more intensely than criticism would, many of the poems also deal with theoretical issues, such as the relationship between poet, critic, reader, and poem. Some of the poems explore what seems to be an underlying goal of the book, in which the narrator makes a shift from that of observer to observed.
***** One might think that the critic as observer enjoys the advantage of being one step removed from the subject, yet this distance becomes problematic when the combined recognizable perspectives don't support a consistent view. One poem presents a scene of conventional domestic life—with gardens and interiors, infants and mothers—infused with a sense of underlying disorder. Yet the figurative language does not convey dread but confusion. The uneasiness is shattered by a visit from the ghost of Sylvia Plath, who rejects the scene:
Whom I had hated for so long,
Holds her cool scissors
Up to my ear, insisting
That I should whisper back her anger, taunt
Them with a shame-
Ful song, beginning
Now: this isn't what I'll ever want.
***** Repeatedly, Burt's poems address the theme of responsibility. In one of the many poems about traveling, the narrator looks down from the cabin of an airplane and experiences pangs of indebtedness, asking himself,
In that white coin, language, which melts as you start to speak?”
***** Gil de Biedma is a telling model for Burt to imitate. In the introduction to his collection Longing (City Lights, 1991), he describes the anxiety he experienced writing under the influence of the internal dictator, his ego, the first person “I,” whom he personifies as a Big Brother figure. He explains: “I thought I wanted to be a poet but basically I wanted to be the poem.” To him, the successful poem achieves a state of pure Being, freed from the influence of the overbearing ego, while the poet, like the critic, must continue to wrestle with his subject. In Burt's case, the poems that address gender find the greatest degree of freedom when they put aside their worries about indebtedness and responsibility and make the shift from side-lines to center stage. The opening poem, one of the strongest in the collection, looks at girlhood as a state of panic in the middle of the night:
Cathode-ray tube, a pomegranate
Unharmed. If I were a girl, I would be a girl.
I hate my career, I want to go home
***** The strength of these poems is not in their unique choice of metaphor—or metonymy or symbol—but in their ability to question. Burt's poetic efforts salute the literary field as a place to invent and experiment, a position guaranteed to contribute to the penetration of his criticism. Through his poetry, he is able to elude the dictates of logic and work out ideas. He can pose questions about what constitutes gender identity, a meaningful poetic life, a long friendship as he juggles seemingly unrelated details and assumes the persona of his subject. These poems demonstrate his ambition to understand himself and his field, as each must be perceived through new eyes.
********* Joyce Wilson is the editor and publisher of The Poetry Porch and a regular contributor to The Drunken Boat.